Meal Planning 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Easy and Effective Meal Planning

If you’ve been in a lifelong struggle to get meals on the table–or in your lunch bag–each day, keep reading. Being the queen of “oh, no, it’s 3PM what the crap am I gonna make tonight,” I can help. Getting started with meal planning is easier than you think!

Do you struggle with what to eat each day? Or even for each meal? I used to.

Back when I was homeschooling my two kids, home all day with them, 3 PM would roll around and I’d be wondering what to make for dinner! Every day.

It wasn’t just exhausting, it was demoralizing. I just couldn’t seem to pull it together, no matter how many times I tried (and failed).

Then I learned about meal planning.

Meal planning can be as simple as thinking about what you want to eat on a particular day.

But we’re going after something a bit more forward thinking.

If you’re just starting out, it can be helpful to just plan your weekday dinner meals.

You certainly don’t want overwhelm yourself if this is something new.

If you’re used to just “winging it,” or worse, throwing in the towel and making book to the nearest KFC or Taco Bell, you really need to start simple. Trust me; I know what I’m talking about.

Google “meal planning” and literally hundreds, if not thousands of links will show up.

What are you supposed to do with that?

And don’t even get me started on Pinterest. You can get lost in there for days.

That’s where this post will come in handy. I’ve tried many plans over the years. Why? Because I’m not the most organized person in the world (a huge understatement). Now you can learn from my mistakes experience!

Before we go on, I want to stress something--you MUST be sure to plan for meals that you and your family will actually EAT.

Many times I have planned an awesomely healthy week, only to find when it’s time to actually eat it, I have zero interest. What are you supposed to do then?

You either eat something you don’t want, or “save” it for the trash can later. Totally wasteful. So just. don’t. do. that! Make stuff you’ll eat.

This is why it’s a good idea to start with only 2 or 3 days at first, if you’ve never planned much before.

Why Should You Plan Your Meals?

It will save your sanity.

I cannot tell you how many times during my time as a wife/stay-at-home mom/home school teacher I found myself at 3 PM wondering what in the heck we were going to have for dinner.

No matter how many times I wanted to have a successful plan for meals, and how many different ideas I tried, I failed time and again.

Now that my kids are grown and it’s just my husband and me, I still need to plan. I have a full-time job, and a lot of other things in my life; perhaps even more than when I was home with my kids.

It will most definitely save you money.

A freezer stuffed with food begging for some meal planning

Ever rifled through your freezer only to find unmarked or freezer-burned mystery food that ends up in the trash?

Or outdated, stale pantry items hiding somewhere behind all the half-used cereal boxes?

You may be far more organized than I am (was), but if so, you probably don’t need this primer.

We purchase frozen chicken breasts and thighs at Costco, for example, and keep them in the freezer in our laundry room.

This turns out to be less expensive than purchasing chicken breasts on the way home from work because I just figured out at 3:30 what we should have for dinner.

I know that many people may have the time and wherewithal to shop bargains at several different stores with coupons. Not me.

I want to cut the time it takes me to shop, cook, and prepare delicious and satisfying meals.

You will stop wasting so much food.

I have been so guilty of this! I make too much and the leftovers get lost in the refrigerator. Or I purchase a 5 pound bag of potatoes but cannot use them all within the week or however long they last before going bad (rotting potatoes have to be the worst smelling thing on earth).

woman wasting food who needs to meal plan

With meal planning you shop for what you need for the entire set of meals or menus you plan to prepare.

You really can plan for little or no food waste.

We like flavorful food, comfort food. If you crave chicken Parmesan or fettuccine Alfredo, you can find healthier options with less fat, sodium, or what have you.

Also, if you want need to fit more vegetables into your daily meals, this is an excellent way to be somewhat stealth about that.


It will probably give you some much-needed variety!

I know it did for me and my family. Without a plan, I fell back on the same meals constantly.

I really like a simple plan and I do repeat a lot, but it was getting ridiculous. I needed to up my game some and add variety into my family’s diet.

Finally, it can ease that “what’s for dinner” stress time in the late afternoon.

Don’t take this lightly—it can be very important. I have a high-stress job and the last thing I need is obsessing daily over what’s for dinner.

Getting Started

First make a list of your favorite dinner meals.

Hopefully you have 7-10 of them (or more). If not, don’t worry…you’ll develop others as you find new recipes (with all your freed-up time!).

Don’t be concerned at this time about what you already have in the freezer, etc. Just write your favorite meals down. Then pick three or four of them to start.

Maybe even two if you think taking on too big of a challenge will overwhelm you. Baby steps here!

Gather all the recipes and make a list of the necessary ingredients.

old recipe box

If you know them by heart, or they don’t really need a recipe, you’re ahead of the game.

Once you have your ingredient list, you can check your freezer, refrigerator, and pantry to see what you need to shop for. I’ll share an example later in the post.

You can also check out my post on how I organize my recipes for one idea.

Check your fridge, Freezer and pantry!

If you need to clean those out first, by all means do so. But go ahead and check to see if you have chicken breasts, ground meat (whether beef, turkey, chicken), or any roast. What about still usable frozen veggies?

Now check for pantry staples like chicken, vegetable or beef broth, various herbs and spices, dried or canned beans, pasta, tomato products.

It goes without saying you should throw out anything that is very outdated. Not that you would have anything like that, right?

Make Your Grocery List

Stick to your list and do not purchase a bunch of impulse stuff! No chips, candy, frozen pizza.

grocery list

Organize your list according to how your favorite store is set up.

I generally shop for pantry staples and the like first, and then hit fresh produce, followed by frozen items.

Check to be sure that, even if you have an item in your pantry or freezer that there is enough of it, AND that it isn’t hopelessly outdated.

The last time I looked, I had no fewer than 3 containers of paprika! I don’t (or didn’t) use paprika very often, so I would assume I didn’t have any, get more at the store, etc.

Now Do the Shopping!

I’m a get in there and get out kinda gal, which can be a positive since I don’t linger over stuff I shouldn’t purchase.

grocery store with variety

It can also mean I get out of there having forgotten something.

Since the goal here is to only have to shop once a week (once every two weeks?) this can be a problem.

But, it has to be done, so just do it. Or, use one of the newer grocery delivery services that many stores seem to have available now, if that’s your thang.

Instacart is a service that will shop at your local grocery stores, if it’s in your area. Check the link I have there, you can see if they are available in yours.

Many other stores have this service, such as Walmart, Costco, Safeway, Fred Meyer (part of Kroger in my area), and many more. It’s not something I’ve done, but I know people who swear by it.

Do Some Prep Work Right After You Get Home From Shopping

I know, I know. You’re all tired out and hungry from the shopping. Okay, maybe you can make a sandwich while your husband puts away the perishables.

chopping vegetables

But there is still work to do. Trust me, this will save you so much time later in the week, or possibly month.

Now that’s my kind of tired!

But seriously, some prep work can go a long way toward making your weeknights (and mornings) much easier and less stressful.

That’s it for now, and should be enough to get you started. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions!

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